Beneficiaries of Public Sexuality in the post-Civil War American North and South

In the late nineteenth century, there was a great debate surrounding the place of sexuality. In the North, “Free Love” warriors like Victoria Woodhull fought for open discussion of sexuality against anti-vice advocates like Anthony Comstock. In the South, sexuality was brought into the public sphere for a different reason: racial oppression. In both geographic areas, we see the argument for or resistance from sexuality in the public sphere as seeking to benefit some demographic of society. For the Free Lovers, public sexuality meant open discussion of health and freedom from the passionlessness public script and confines of marriage. For white supremacists, public sexuality was used as a way to continuously assert dominance over blacks. In all cases, it is important to move past supposed moral motives and consider who the real beneficiaries are when sexuality enters the public sphere.

In the Northern states, the question of public sexuality was based mainly on the language used in the public, whether it was spoken, in a book or newspaper ad, or even in a letter sent through the mail. Many ads featured cures for sexually transmitted diseases, ‘spicy photos’ of pretty French girls, and even for doctors who could issue drugs to induce a miscarriage. These ads would be seen as racy- even in our time- and were highly controversial. In 1873, Congress passed the Postal Act, which gave anti-vice crusaders a victory and infuriated Free Love advocates. Anthony Comstock, member of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice, vehemently opposed of anything that could be seen as sexual in the public sphere. He believed that this ‘evil’ corrupts children and threatens society. He argued that “there is no greater force at work in the community more insidious, more constant in demands, or more powerful andfar-reaching than lust. It is the companion of all other crimes” (MP, 244).

comstock act

It is possible that Comstock was truly crusading for the sake of his community. On the other hand, there were members of the community who very much disagreed with Comstock. When one part of society gets something, another part of society often loses something. In this case, Victoria C. Woodhull argued that it was women who were losing from the suppression of public sexuality. Woodhull believed that sexual matters were a place for open discussion, and to suppress them only meant to perpetuate the chains of hypocrisy that she believed were found in Victorian society and marriage in particular. Woodhull speaks a lot about ‘freedom’ in her 1973 speech, ‘The Scare-Crows of Sexual Slavery’. She believed that freedom meant that, “each and every individual has the right in his or her own proper person to make such use of any or all of his powers and capacities as he or she may elect to do” (MP, 245). Comstock and Woodhull each represent a section of Northern society that had something to gain and something to lose in the battle of public sexuality and while on the surface their intention may come across as moral, their fights had prizes to be won or lost by their demographic.

In the South, there also existed a battle along gender lines in the fight for public sexuality, but it was more than anything affected by a person’s race. Following the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan formed groups in every state and enacted terrorism to the freed blacks. These blacks sought to use their new notions of agency in their lives. For men, this meant new economic and political gains. For women, it meant finally uses her material and sexual resources to benefit her own family (Dowd-Hall). In the past times of slavery, sexual relations between men and women of mixed colors occurred fairly frequently. Typically, it was a white plantation owner asserting dominance and control over a black slave. More infrequently, but present, were relations between a black man and a white woman. Following the Civil War, the entirely system changed during the Reconstruction-era. When Reconstruction began to crumble, white found new ways to assert dominance over blacks. Thus began an obsession with ‘protecting’ the white women from the black males. In the Ku Klux Klan’s charter, women are mentioned as “special objects of our regard and protection” (Hodes). This statement went for white women only and white men often did rape and assault black women. The mindset of white and specifically the Klan was that sexual liaisons between a black man and a white woman were linked to black men’s political and economic independence (Hodes). To suppress this, white supremacists consistently and systematically terrorized, assaulted, and lynched blacks. Lynching was tolerated because the crime was always claimed to be the rape of a white woman. This claim was generally false in the vast majority of the cases. Their crimes were published in newspapers and mobs would get the person that was to be lynched and do it in a public spectacle. This public assertions of sexuality and dominance had lasting consequences in the South. In this case, public sexuality was to the benefit of the whites, specifically the white men in the South. For the South, they could use public notions of sexuality to perpetuate their dominance on a race that they were dedicated to putting down.


In each of these examples, the use of public sexuality is debated. Each has its beneficiaries and its losers. More importantly to consider is how public sexuality is used throughout time to control certain elements in society. Even today, we still debate the use of sexuality in the public and it poses a question: who today benefits from an open public discourse about sexuality and who does not?

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Kelsey Shober

Senior History and Political Science major at Virginia Tech. I have written blogs for multiple classes including: Twentieth Century Russia, America in the 1960s, and the History of Sexuality in America.

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